After ‘Shea Butter Baby’, Ari Lennox is finally exhaling

Photography via Totem PR

There is something that happens when people come together and talk about music. For me, I often find that I have an instant connection with people who I share a similar taste in music with. It is that same sense of ease and comfort that I feel when sitting down with rising R&B singer, Ari Lennox, talking about her journey in music so far, the release of her debut album Shea Butter Baby and just talking about our common love for music in general.

Ari, who may be known to some as the only woman artist signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, has actually been making music for a while now, but it was not until her first release through Dreamville – her 2016 EP PHO – that heads slowly started turning towards her. Shea Butter Baby is the follow-up, which has been the better part of two years in the making. After recording 100 or so tracks for the project, the final 12 songs are what Ari has described as, “a gift to black women [showing] a love and appreciation for black women everywhere.”

Ari, who hails from Washington DC, grew up in a house where the likes of El Debarge, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were playing out of the stereo. She also listened to a variety of artists on the radio.

“Growing up I’d hear all these kids like JoJo and Bow-Wow singing on the radio and I always wanted to sing, even from the time I was around three years old. My grandmother told me I had the voice of an angel, so I kept singing and then I got into the church where I sang a number of solos and I then entered a number of talents shows which included Showtime at the Apollo”

From there followed a dodgy record deal and a number of songs released under another name. The earlier version of herself as an artist, she tells me, was all about “discovering the types of things I wanted to talk about, which for me was wanting to talk about my experiences.” After getting out of what she says was “a tyranny”, she met J. Cole and subsequently signed to Dreamville. It was something that quite literally changed her life. 

“J. Cole always has me thinking, and I always feel so enlightened and that’s really the whole energy of Dreamville. It’s just family”

“From the get-go it was a beautiful experience for me – he was just a real-ass king who genuinely was about the people, all love and just working, staying productive, being positive. He always has me thinking, and I always feel so enlightened and that’s really the whole energy of the label. It’s just family.”

The conversation lands next on the album, as well as the various themes Ari chose to address on it: love, sexuality, self-care and an overall sense of empowerment for black women. 

“I feel like, as black women, we are not appreciated and loved on enough,” she tells me, “Our curly hair isn’t loved on enough and we don’t see it in enough movies or commercials – us in our natural state, whether it’s the deepest chocolate woman or a fair-skinned woman with her 4C hair. We are discriminated against in so many different ways, so with this album I wanted to basically celebrate all black women, saying we are beautiful in our natural form, and I just wanted to encourage that for the world to see that.”

I am intrigued to know what her intention might be for the newer fans of Ari Lennox or anybody that may not have come across her prior to this album – what her message is for those particular people in getting to understand her better as an artist and meeting her for the first time through this album. 

“I didn’t know if people would like my music, and so it’s the greatest reward that there are people who look like me who feel safe and happy and free listening to it”

“I’m really frank, and I’m just going to talk my shit and tell my story whether people relate to it or not,” she says, “I had no idea people could relate to ‘New Apartment’ or ‘Shea Butter Baby’. I didn’t know if people would like it, and so it’s the greatest reward that there are people who look like me who feel safe and happy and free listening to my music, because it’s rare that you hear this stuff.” 

Another pressure comes from not only being an artist of 2019 – a time when the demand for regular drops of music is at an all-time high – but also from being associated with J. Cole, not least because she’s the only woman artist on Dreamville. There must be certain expectations that come from this.

“There is definitely pressure in terms of coming from Dreamville,” she agrees, “But I’m glad because now I feel like I rose to the occasion. At first I was like, damn – I don’t know, I was very uncomfortable with people calling me ‘First Lady’, or ‘The Queen of Dreamville’ and everything they were saying, because I was like, ‘I now need to deliver, I need to show Cole this was no accident’. And so with all these beautiful blessings of Pho and Shea Butter Baby I finally feel I can exhale, because it just feels like I’m here and I’m supposed to be here.” 

“My self-care is playing a lot of The Sims 3”

Having spoken about the pressures of making music, I’m curious to find out how Ari practices self-care. “A lot of Sims 3, I love The Sims 3.” At this point a full discussion comparing The Sims 3 and 4 ensues before we get back on track. “Lots of gaming helps me,” she says, “As well as playing with my dog. My boyfriend is my peace, my nephew, hanging out with my mum. All these things that give me my peace and my therapy in the midst of the madness of life.”

Before we part ways, Ari’s last offering is the overall message she wants to put out in terms of representing herself, and what she wants to put across with her in her music overall. “I would love to feel more love, because I feel like black women are amazing and we contribute so much, and we are gorgeous in all ways and we’re intelligent and we should just be loved on way more. So that is what I would hope. I just want people to take this album and love on us, and just have more love in general.”

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